“Are you planning on writing a book?” she asks me.
I’m taken aback.
“It’s on my bucket list,” I finally reply, after an awkward pause.
“You should,” she says, and sips her coffee.
With vivacious interest sparkling through her eyes, she proceeds to ask me questions about myself. “Do you enjoy writing?” she asks. A slew of questions ensue. Only difference is that they’re not coming from me, as they should be. “I’m supposed to interview you,” I tell her drily and she laughs gaily.
Her insatiable curiosity about people, places and history has certainly paid off for her, I can tell. After all, JK Asher or Jasbir Kaher (“Asher is my Christian name”) has come up with a whopper of a novel The Inverted Banyan Tree And The Way Thither, a sweeping saga about love, race and religion set in two parallel timelines — the colonial pre-independence Malaya and Malaysia at the cusp of its progression and Look East policy in the 1980s. As we chat, it quickly becomes clear that Kaher’s debut novel is far from being an overnight success story. “It took me almost two decades to write it,” she tells me.
“There was so much research involved. I researched religions including Islam, Roman Catholicism as well as the histories of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. I went to Jogjakarta to learn about keris-making. I also studied and researched on the Eurasians and the Kristang community from Melaka.” She lists them all in exhaustive detail and it dawns on me that her 388 pages of a sprawling novel about life, love and faith in Malaya (and Malaysia) comes replete with painstaking details that make it both intriguing — and a challenge to read in one sitting, at the same time.
A STORY BACK IN TIME
Kaher’s erudite tale of love, faith and religion reminds me of the old-school historical novels I used to enjoy. These are the kind of stories that you simply can’t just blaze through in just a day. It begs you to give it what it needs — time. I’m starkly reminded of my well-worn books, James Clavell’s Shogun or even Margaret Mitchell’s epic Gone With The Wind that are now yellowing with dog-eared pages on my bookshelf.
The story is deceptively simple. Mariam, a young Roman Catholic Serani (of mixed Asian and Western parentage) helps rescue a Muslim teenager Ishmael from the clutches of Japanese soldiers during the tumultuous World War II through her quick thinking. His grateful father, Ummah, the headman of a village in Port Dickson is captivated by the young girl and hopes to marry his son to her: “Ishmael would suit a girl like her, such courage and a big heart.”
The idyllic haven that was once Malaya soon changes, and Ummah, Ishmael and Mariam must fight a different type of battle to stay together — a battle that involves greed, fanaticism and a rising tide of prejudice and bigotry. As much as it is a love story set in a time and place that’s long past, Kaher’s narrative reminds me that the issues of identity, racism and religious prejudices are universal issues that are just as current today as they are in her epic tale. As you delve deep into the stories of the three protagonists, the narrative takes on an allegorical nuance, causing you to reflect deeply on the travails of history and how issues like identity and religion are slowly becoming major points of contention in a country that once thrived on multi-culturalism and tolerance.
Her novel, she says, is a clarion call back to simpler times when the country wasn’t so fraught with division. “The Malaysia I used to know was completely integrated. Back in the early days, there was an embracing of culture and differences. We cared for each other. It was ingrained in us. The muhibbah (harmonious) spirit wasn’t just a word bandied about but it was a way of life back then,” she says soberly. Pausing for a moment, she adds softly: “I’ve never found this anywhere else.”
Australia is a lonely place, she tells me. “There’s no true sense of community there. At least not the kind you can get over here,” she explains. Pausing to sip her coffee, she adds with wistful smile: “Perhaps that’s why I’ve not gotten around getting my citizenship yet!” The 17 years spent abroad had caused her to reminisce about home and all that she had left behind, thousands of miles away. “I’m a pendatang (interloper) in a foreign land,” declares Kaher bluntly of Australia. “Perhaps it’s all these feelings of being outside my skin in a place that seems remote and lonely, had gotten me thinking about my roots and how Malaysia is this wonderful unique melting pot of races and religions.”
A LASTING LOVE
Hailing from a large family of five brothers and four sisters, Kaher paints the story of her own life in vivid colours. She spent her early childhood in Seremban and then moved to the capital city when she was just 5 years old. “We lived near the madrasah where I “became” a Muslim by osmosis and symbiosis,” she recounts with a smile. The love and example shown by the Muslim community where she lived, had a profound effect on her, “... because they were lovingly inclusive,” she says, relating that the shared love of Hindi movies, food and celebration kept the vibrant community where she lived, close-knit.
“I loved the sound of the azan (Muslim call to prayer). Every evening when I heard it, I’d feel quietness and peace descend upon me. My mother would remind us: ‘it’s time for prayer, turn on the lights!’” she reminisces with a laugh. She tells me candidly that much of her novel pays homage to the Malay culture and Islam. “There’s so much prejudice against Islam, leading from the tragic events of Sept 11, 2011,” she says. She is of course referring to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre that had precipitated prejudice against the Muslims to this day.
The rising tide of Arabisation and fanaticism has also added on to a growing crisis that has reached Malaysia shores. “There’s so much suspicion where once acceptance thrived,” she remarks with a sigh. “I wanted this book to be a reminder that we mustn’t lose what we have,” she says resolutely.
The Inverted Banyan Tree is a tribute of sorts, she tells me, about the people and place she loved, during her formative years in Malaysia. The former Assuntarian says: “Back at school, we had Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians all getting along famously, thanks to our headmistress, a Roman Catholic nun who perpetuated such a beautiful broadmindedness.”
This “beautiful” broadmindedness is reflected in her characters. Ummah, the village headman in the book has an unusual way of looking beyond the surface, to recognise the good in people. The fact that he encourages his son to marry an outsider of a different religion is a testament of his far-sighted perspective. “My book is really all about a journey into the heart where once prejudices and religious bigotry peel off, we can find our identity in love and freedom without fear,” she explains.
The quest for identity is nothing new, she says, pointing out that people are strengthened by a knowledge and appreciation of their respective cultures, however broadly or narrowly defined. However, in the current atmosphere of political and other flux, here as well as elsewhere, it’s not inconceivable that there could be wayward elements who would find “a happy hunting ground” for adding fuel to the fire of real or perceived ethnic disparities and/or subliminal tensions of one sort or another. Misty-eyed, she asserts: “Our country’s strength stems from its diversity. We must honour our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred and bigotry which run counter to our founding fathers’ vision of Malaysia.” Pausing, she adds simply: “And this is what my book stands for.”
In his review of her book, author, playwright, director and former chairman of Media Prima Berhad, Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar puts it eloquently: “How things have changed from the era depicted by the novel. Our people are drifting apart. Notions like muhibbah and perpaduan (unity) are taken for granted. Even multiculturalism, the very foundation of our existence and the bedrock of the characters in this novel are frowned upon. It is within that construct, JK Asher created her characters, of men and women who lived the period, innocence not yet lost, humility the rule of the day and decorum was observed to the latter. Not only that, Asher’s keen attention to history’s bitter hold of the present is remarkable. She knows what history means. She uses history as a backdrop, skilfully weaving it as a tapestry of happenings, big and small. It is within that setting, she places the love story in this novel that is both complex and riveting.”
“It’s really about reclaiming our identity again,” Kaher concludes with a smile. “The banyan tree is a unique fig species, with its many trunks that’s connected directly and indirectly to the main primary trunk. It’s a little like us, isn’t it? We can be different, but we’re really part of the same tree.”
The Inverted Banyan Tree and the way thither
Author JK Asher
Publisher Atlantis Books
Books are sold at MPH bookstores and can also be purchased online via www.bookurve.my